Late winter is one of the best times to view the large water-filled earthwork of Timperley Old Hall. The lack of undergrowth and leaves on the trees reveals the massive nature of the water-filled ditches, whilst the low afternoon sun reveals earthworks running to the east of the moat that might be connected with it. This moated site is one of over 6000 such monuments known in England. Most of these are thought to have been dug between the 12th and 15th centuries. 500 of these moated sites are recorded in North West England, although there are far fewer in Cumbria than anywhere else within the region, most being located in Cheshire and historic southern Lancashire.
Such moats are usually found as isolated sites. They were part of a dispersed settlement pattern comprising farmsteads and hamlets, as at Timperley. Within the region most moated sites lie below 150m above sea level, normally on poorly drained boulder clay soils such as the lands around Warrington and eastern Cheshire. 92% of these moats have a single ditch, but only 8% have more than one enclosure or an elaborate complex of platforms and associated ditches, as could once be found at Dunham Hall. 84% of the moats in North West England have evidence for domestic buildings on the platform. Many moats incorporated fishponds as a bulge in the line of the moat, which may be the case at Timperley, whilst other recorded features included leats, bridges, gatehouses, chapels, and farm buildings (see Pierce D, North P & Nevell M, 2013, Timperley Old Hall. Greater Manchester’s Past Revealed Volume 8).
Since the mid-20th century 69 moats have been excavated in North West England. This work has ranged from small-scale evaluations and watching briefs as at Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire and Speke Hall in Liverpool, to extensive open area excavations at Bewsey Old Hall near Warrington and Hopecarr Hall in Wigan. Within Greater Manchester 63 certain and 22 possible moated sites are known, of which several have been excavated including: Buttery House Farm, Denton Hall, Ordsall Hall, Peel Hall, and Timperley Old Hall.
The distribution of moated sites within the Manchester city region conforms closely to the national distribution, with a marked preference for low-lying areas on wet soils such as clay. Eight moated sites lie within the Trafford area. However, at only two of these sites can moat-remains be seen: Buttery House Farm and Timperley Old Hall. At the other sites (Dunham Hall – originally a motte and bailey castle where the moated features appear to be Tudor in origin, New Croft Hall, Riddings Hall, Shaw Hall, Trafford Old Hall, and Warburton Park Farm) there are no physical remains of the moat.
As in other parts of the country the moated sites of the Manchester region were an expression of wealth and social prestige. The status of these sites would appear to fall into two categories. Firstly, some were the manor houses of the lesser gentry, as at Timperley Old Hall where the first hall was a winged timber-framed building of the 13th century on stone foundations. Such sites are usually assumed to have been the primary settlement within a medieval manor. Secondly, and more commonly, were those moats that were the homes of wealthy freemen. These represented later settlement and woodland clearance in the manorial landscape. In Trafford most of the certain and possible moated sites are associated with manorial sites. The exceptions are Riddings Hall in Timperley, Shaw Hall in Davyhulme, and New Croft Hall in Urmston which were all owned by wealthy freemen (see Nevell M, 1997, The Archaeology of Trafford).
Occasionally, moated sites were used as farmland structures or parkland features. Such a site appears to have been Buttery House Farm in Hale. This moated site was excavated between 1977 and 1980 by the Extra-Mural Department at Manchester University, and again by GMAU in 1986. Medieval activity on the site took the form of a scatter of post-holes and three drainage gullies, all of which may have been related to the moat’s possible use as a hunting within the medieval Sunderland Park.
During the 16th and 17th centuries many moats became redundant and partially filled. Some survived as over-grown ditches, as their hall buildings declined in status to that of a tenanted farm. These run-down buildings were then demolished and replaced by a nearby new hall in the latest fashion: this appears to have been the fate of Timperley Old Hall.
In the winter of 1993 to 1994 survey work by STAG members Joan Hagan, John Hammond, and Joanne Fowler, led by the then chairman Derek Pierce, attempted to place the moat in its immediate landscape context. The excavations of the southern moat arm in the early 1990s had demonstrated that it was a clay-lined feature designed to hold water all year round. If it was clay-lined where did the water supply come from? Certainly not the local ground water. The first hint that the moat which surrounded Timperley Old Hall was fed by water from elsewhere was found on two of the earliest maps from the township of Timperley. The 1838 tithe map of Timperley (Cheshire Record Office reference EDT 396/2) shows an eastern extension of the southern moat arm that was tree lined on its southern side. Comparison with the 1801 enclosure map for the township of Timperley indicates a further eastward extension of this feature as a series of field boundaries terminating at Timperley Brook roughly 800m to the east (SJ 7848 7877).
Using the tithe map (CRO EDT 396/2) as a reference, initial survey work revealed a waterlogged depression 6.60m wide extending eastwards for 56.75m from the south-eastern comer of the present moat (SJ 7774 8809). This coincided with the tree-lined water feature visible on the tithe and enclosure maps. Following the line eastwards from SJ 7778 8808 a narrower strip, 3.0m wide and equally waterlogged, continued at right angles to the north-south ridge and furrow, remnants of Victorian landscape drainage still visible on the golf course after 100 years. The line of the leat from the south-eastern corner of the moat (SJ 7768 8809) could be followed eastwards for c 275m as a shallow depression roughly 6m wide and up to 1m deep. The depression ran parallel to but north of a second depression varying from 6m to 16m. Both lines converge and disappear under the edge of a 2m build-up of garden levels belonging to a suburban housing development along Cloverley Drive. The projected line of this feature ran into the Timperley Brook at SJ 7741 8813 but there was no indication of any associated features at this point. A fall from east to west of 2.92m was observed along its c 800m length, giving a gradient of 1 in 273.
Permission was obtained to walk across two woodland gardens at the Cloverley Drive end of the feature which revealed a tree-lined terrace running on the general line of the feature through to where it meets Timperley Brook at the site of a derelict bridge (SJ 7848 7877). The observed features were compared with the 1801 enclosure map and can be seen to separate Moat Field and Haughton Meadow (field number 334), from Great Eye Meadow (335).
The connection of the brook to the moat via a leat system would ensure a supply of water in times of drought by manipulation of a sluice gate across the main flow of the brook. The existence of this system in the early 16th century is suggested by references in three documents of AD 1531, 1535, and 1541 to meadows on Arderne land (see Ormerod G, 1882, The History of the County Palatine and City of Chester). Since the Arderne family owned only that stretch of Timperley Brook between Green Lane in the east and Stockport Road in the west it is possible, but not certain, that these meadows may have been fed by the leat system identified by the STAG survey of the winter of 1993 to 1994, and still visible when the sun is low in the sky and the landscape denuded of its vegetation.